WE ARE ALREADY PLANNING FOR MORDECHAI A FREEDOM PARTY IN LONDON

from Iton Tel Aviv
14 June 2002

translated by Yael Lotan


Nick and Mary Eoloff of Minnesota, who adopted Mordechai Vanunu, are among the few who are allowed to enter the cell of the world-famous Israeli prisoner. Exactly two years before he is released, they tell us what Vanunu said to them at their last meeting, which took place two weeks ago:

* 'Mordechai is still convinced that he did the right thing, and would do it again.'

* 'He has plans for the future, to live in California and teach American history.'

* 'He blames Israel for the fact that most of his life has passed without family and without love.'

* 'He wants to marry, and there are many women in the world who write to him.'

* And, yes, when he is released, 'he intends to speak freely about his beliefs.'


Twice a year, usually in May and November, an amiable retired couple arrive at Shikmah prison in Ashkelon. After the rigorous security checks at the gate, they present an official document from the Minnesota court, which states that they are the adoptive parents of Israel's world-famous prisoner. They're given the usual instructions - not to speak about Sandy and the abduction, Dimona or the trial, otherwise the meeting will be stopped at once. Then they go into Mordechai Vanunu's cell.

Nick and Mary Adopt [Mordechai] - 'We're spiritual parents'

The Eoloffs - Mary 70, Nick 72 - live in St Paul, a mid-western town on the border of Minnesota and Canada, where winter reigns nine months of the year. They have six children aged between 33 and 54, and 16 grandchildren. Before their retirement Nick was an editor at a publishing house and Mary a teacher. Their connection with Vanunu began one freezing day in January 1995. Mary Eoloff opened the latest issue of The Progressive. She became absorbed in a story about an Israeli guy she had never heard of, by name of Mordechai Vanunu, who had been held in isolation for 11 and a half years, because of his attempt to reveal Israel's atom secrets to the world.

'What stunned me about the story,' Mary recalls, 'was the severity of the sentence. I couldn't understand how anyone, even if he has done wrong, could be confined like this in a small cell.' Mary decided to write him a letter. 'I can't remember exactly what I wrote, but no doubt expressed my sympathy, because the article was horrifying. After a while we became active in the campaign to free him, and my husband Nick began to interest senators in getting him released.'

Nick: 'At some point we realized that it was a dead end. No-one, including Madeleine Albright or Bill Clinton, agreed to help, arguing that it was an internal Israeli matter. Then we said, what else can we do? And we decided to adopt him, so that on the basis of our citizenship he would be an American citizen and we'd be able to bring him to the States.

'But,' Nick goes on, 'in the process we discovered that this wouldn't work, because Mordechai is an adult and only adopted minors receive citizenship automatically. But we decided to adopt him anyway, so that when the time comes and he's released, it will be easier for us to get him American citizenship. Aside from which, by adopting him we're in a way legitimating what Mordechai did for humanity. We also believe that the world must be cleansed of nuclear weapons, and that conflicts must be resolved by negotiations.'

'What did Vanunu say when you suggested it?'

'We put the idea to him in a letter, explaining that we were doing this in order to get him out of Israel and into the United States. It had to be done with his full consent.'

'Didn't he say, I have parents who will be hurt?'

Nick: 'Everyone has natural parents, and it doesn't mean you can't adopt parents from choice.'

Mary: 'I know that when Mordechai left Dimona he travelled around the world to find himself. When he reached Australia he met a Christian group who ran a shelter for homeless people. He was impressed by them and said, 'That's what I want to do, this is the sort of religion I want to belong to.' He was baptized and became a Christian. His parents, who are very religious, disowned him, and as far as I know there is no contact between them.'

The process of adopting Mordechai took about a year, because it was carried out by post and included delays caused by the censoring of his incoming and outgoing mail. Nick explains that the procedure itself is simple enough: to adopt an adult you have to apply to the adoption court, and then meet three requirements: one, the adoptee must be present in person; two, he/she must submit a birth-certificate; three, must agree to be adopted.

'The court,' Nick goes on, 'allowed for the special circumstances in Mordechai's case. It agreed to forego his physical presence and his original birth-certificate, which does not exist in Israel either, because he was born in Morocco, where there was no registration. As for the third condition, we had a letter from Mordechai in which he agreed to the adoption. So in October 1997 the court issued us a birth-certificate which states that Mordechai Vanunu is the son of Nicholas and Mary Eoloff.'

'Didn't the judge think you were mad?'

'It was unusual, but we made the application and it was accepted. It's true that in the first documents we submitted to the court we explained the action by saying that he was suffering cruel and inhuman punishment, and they told us we couldn't put in such a statement, because it was political. So we had to drop the explanation and simply ask to adopt him.'

'What does the adoption signify?'

'From the point of view of the United States it means nothing so long as he's in prison. That's why we want to bring him here and start the process of his naturalization. The adoption is more significant from Israel's point of view, because Mordechai can receive visits from close family members. So from the moment we were recognized as his parents, we had the right to visit him.'

Four of the Eoloff's six children accepted their parents' decision, but do not keep up a regular correpondence with their new brother. For them, this is part of their parents' social commitment. The only one who has met Vanunu is the youngest son, Jonathan.

Nor has Vanunu's family fully understood the adoption. Vanunu has eleven siblings, of whom two keep in close touch with him - Asher, who lives in Jerusalem, and Meir, who lives in Australia.

Mary: 'At first they said we shouldn't publicize the adoption, because their parents might be very hurt, and it would be painful for the family in general. But the campaigners urged us to publish the adoption, because it would be helpful in getting him released. They said if nobody knows about him, it's as though he doesn't exist, and then how shall we get him out of prison?'

'Are you interested in meeting his original family, his parents?'

Mary: 'Of course. We would like to explain that we do not intend to be his parents in the biological sense. We know he has parents. We just was to help him like parents.'

IN MORDECHAI'S CELL: 'GO AND MAKE A LOT OF NOISE'

In February 1998, some six months after he became officially their adopted son, Nick and Mary Eoloff decided to go to Israel, for the first time in their lives, and present themselves at the gate of Shikmah prison in Ashkelon. They did not know if they'd be allowed to meet him.

Mary: 'We stood at the gate and asked to visit Mordechai. The guard said it was not up to him, and said we should put in a request and wait for an answer. At the time Mordechai was in isolation and was allowed to see only his immediate family, his lawyer and a priest. We went to a hotel in Bethlehem and waited for three days, until Sunday night, when we got a phone call from the prison. They said our visit was approved on three conditions: not to speak about what he did at Dimona, about his trial, which was held behind closed doors, or about his abduction from Rome.'

'Were you excited?'

'Tremendously. We would have liked to celebrate with all the campaigners, to open a bottle of champagne. But there were only the two of us there, so we hugged each other and shared the excitement. That night we also got a phone call from Meir, Mordechai's brother: 'I hear you got permission to visit him - we'll visit him with you.'"

And so, after landing in Israel, the Eoloffs were about to meet their new family members for the first time - their adopted son and his two brothers. 'It was a very moving experience for us,' Mary recalls.

From the gate they were all led into the visitors' room. Mary: 'We entered the room before Mordechai. I remember everything was gray and there was glass between us. His two brothers sat on a bench and we remained standing. Then they brought in Mordechai, whom we'd never seen before. Not even photographs. When I saw his brothers that morning we assumed he would resemble them, but we really didn't know what he looked like. I'll never forget the first impression of Mordechai - he looked old. I know he was about 40, but to me he looked 50 or older.'

'How come? When you adopted him, weren't you curious to see what he looked like?'

Nick: 'We were not concerned about his looks. It's not as if we'd have given him back if we didn't like his looks...'

'What happened after the first look?'

Mary: 'We put our palms on the glass. We wanted to give him a big hug, but we couldn't. Nick and I cried, but he didn't. Nick apologized that it took us so long to complete the adoption, but Mordechai was very patient and understanding. For 20 minutes we talked about his daily routine. He told us they didn't include him in the morning roll-call, because he was in isolation, and this upset him, because it was as if he wasn't a person.

'Throughout the meeting there was another man in the room, who had to write down in Hebrew everything that was said in English. Then, after 20 minutes, Mordechai began to speak about nuclear weapons. The prison man did not react. We thought he didn't hear, or that he wasn't concentrating. We didn't know what to say, because we knew it was a forbidden subject. After a few minutes, when Mordechai mentioned it again, the man said, 'That's the end of the visit,' and an argument broke out between him and Mordechai in Hebrew, which we couldn't understand.

'In the end his brothers asked us to leave the room, because they wanted to talk to him alone. It turned out that they asked him about his consent to the adoption, and he must have answered positively, because when they came out they brought an unequivocal message: Go and make as much noise about it as possible.'

'Doesn't it strike you as odd that two elderly people come from far away to meet a man they adopted unconditionally, and all he cares about is to talk about nuclear weapons and spoil the visit?'

Nick: 'At that time he had been in isolation for years, he never saw anyone, which is hard. It didn't surprise me that he wanted to do something to express his humanity, like doing something forbidden. Since that time we're more conscious of the subjects of conversation and we're careful not to let him talk about forbidden subjects. He writes us about his views on nuclear weapons, so probably he doesn't feel it's necessary to talk about them when we meet.'

Mary: 'At that time he didn't know us, we weren't even friends. And because he was silenced for so long, it must have been important to him to find out our position and to express his own. In his first letters to us he wrote a lot about the need to get rid of all nuclear weapons in the world, and repeated it like a mantra. Now he writes a lot about other subjects. We talk about what he's doing, what he's reading. We tell him about what our children are doing. Nowadays it's different, we know each other.'

'Does he call you Mom and Dad?'

Mary: 'Of course not. We are more his spiritual parents.'

TWO YEARS TO FREEDOM - 'HE CAN ALREADY SEE THE END'

Shortly after the couple's first visit, after 11 and a half years in isolation, Mordechai was let out of his cell, to the great joy of all the organizations acting for his release, and especially his adoptive parents. For the last two years Mary and Nick make a point of visiting Vanunu twice a year, usually in May and November. A few weeks ago they returned from such a visit, and the next one will probably take place during the High Holidays, about September.

Unlike the first visit, which took place in a closed room with a glass partition, the meetings nowadays take place in a special small building for visitors. 'We can only bring him books and tapes. Letters can only be sent by post, not delivered personally. The clothes we bring him are kept in storage for when he's released, and he can only receive T-shirts. So we send him T-shirts with the logo of Georgetown University, things like that.'

Mary says that at their last meeting Mordechai 'looked very well. He's gained a little weight, he's suntanned. I think he looks good because he can already smell the release, in exactly two years' time. He realizes that he'll be coming out to live his life. On our last trip we had two meetings - the first for an hour and a half, and the for second two hours. After the first I said, I wish I'd said this and that to him... so they allowed us another visit, and we talked some more.'

'What about?'

'About what he would like to do outside - teach American history. He wants to practice his English, which is so far based on reading. Right now he's busy trying to prevent the publication of a book which is being written now about his trial. I'm glad that every time we meet he's less angry. Perhaps because he can see the end.'

'What is he reading now?'

'Mostly history books. My son and his friends sent him some classics and novels, but he said, Don't send me novels, I want history books. Recently he read a book about nuclear weapons, entitled 'Angels Don't Play this Haarp'. He has a video player in his cell and has asked us for all kinds of tapes, but not ones about nuclear weapons. He's asked us to send him the Sissy Spacek movie 'In the Bedroom'.'

'Did he say what he'll do on the day he's released, in April 2004?'

'From the prison he wants to go straight to the airport and fly to London, to meet the people who have been fighting for him. The organization there is very strong, they demonstrate in front of the embassy every week. We're planning to throw him a great big party, after which he wants to come to the United States and live here.'

'Do you have a room for him at home?'

'We have a room ready for him, but I'm afraid he won't want to live here. It's terribly cold here, and he'll probably prefer to live in California.'

'Why?'

'I think because of the climate. Here it's winter for nine months of the year.'

'Does he talk to you about family, children?'

'Children no, but family yes. He would like to get married.'

'Does he talk about the lost years?'

'Yes, he's sad about that, and it's also part of his anger - that much of his life passed without family or love. He writes us about it and talks about it. In his view, it's the fault of the Israelis that he has no family or wife.'

'Recently it was mentioned in the press that he has a girlfriend in London who corresponds with him.'

'He doesn't tell me about it, and I'm not aware of a specific woman. There are many women all over the world who write to him. But I don't know of anyone in particular with whom he has a romantic relationship through letters.'

'Do you ever speak about Sandy, the woman who seduced him?'

'We don't dare to discuss it. Not because of him - because of the prison authorities. We're not allowed to discuss the abduction, it would stop the conversation.'

'Even in letters?'

'That too. At first his letters were so heavily censored that sometimes we couldn't understand what he wrote. They were badly cut up, were full of holes. He didn't write about it and we don't ask.'

'What was the most moving letter you ever got from him?'

'In December we got a letter from him saying, 'I can't wait to be with you at Christmas.''

'He meant, as a Christian?'

'I think it was more the family occasion that he misses.'

'Does he want to live a normal life, or go on being a symbol?'

'Both. He wants to live a normal life, and also to express his views freely. He's a great believer in freedom of speech. There is a center for victims of torture in Minneapolis, and I believe he needs treatment. It will do him good to let out his thoughts and feelings. He'll have to forget so as to get on with his life.'

'It's been published that he fears for his life after his release.'

'He never talked about it and we didn't ask.'

'Are you worried that he might be killed?'

'I only want to get him out of Israel as quickly as possible.'

'Does he regret what he did?'

'No, he is till convinced that he did the right thing, and that he would do it again. Obviously he doesn't want to repeat the 18 years in prison, but he still says, 'I did the right thing. They did the wrong thing.''

'And was it worthwhile to sacrifice your life for the security of the State of Israel, as he puts it?'

'He's completely convinced that it was important, and that's why he never broke down.'

What is difficult for Mary and Nick is what they hear outside. For example, that all the Jewish prisoners are allowed to go home for the High Holidays, but not Vanunu. Or that he's allowed to mix only with the Jewish prisoners. Mary and Nick were told by an Israeli ex-prisoner that 'the Jewish prisoners are warned not to talk to Mordechai or get close to him, because he knows secrets, and they're afraid that he will pass the secrets to them and then they'll stay in prison because of what they know.'

'Have you ever wondered why he did it?'

Nick: 'I'm a coward, and probably wouldn't have had the guts to do such a thing. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for courage. I know that Israelis think you need nuclear weapons for security, but I believe that conflicts must be resolved by discussions and negotiations.'

'Have you ever been to Dimona?'

'Two years ago, in the summer.'

'What did you feel?'

'We went there to demonstrate with an Israeli anti-nuclear group. We drove there with some Arab members of Knesset. I don't know how to describe my feelings, but we were there, and looking at the place from a distance, it looked more like something intriguing, emblematic.' [Translator: the last words in Hebrew are very vague.]

'Are you in touch with the other characters in the affair? The priest, the Sunday Times people?' 'Not directly, but we are in touch with the Sunday Times journalist to whom Mordechai gave the pictures. We've met a few times and felt that he is committed, and that the paper didn't do enough to protect Mordechai while he was in London. This journalist feels close to him, he calls him Mordy.'

'Does Vanunu hate us, the people of Israel?'

Mary: 'I don't know if hate is the word. He can't hate someone he's never met. Hostile is more like it. He identifies Israel with the people who hurt him. I think that for his own sake he should let it go, but I haven't been in prison, so I assume he needs to express his feelings, and hope that he will be reconciled to his past.'

'Are you angry with Israel?'

'Chiefly about the isolation. That's what makes me angriest. That a person is punished - the world would have understood that. When you do something forbidden, you take punishment into consideration. But not like this.'